Uncertainty Dogs Andijan Refugees

Most of the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan are in a legal no-man’s land with no legal status as refugees and the ever-present risk of deportation.

Uncertainty Dogs Andijan Refugees

Most of the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan are in a legal no-man’s land with no legal status as refugees and the ever-present risk of deportation.

Thursday, 23 November, 2006
Refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan following violence in the Uzbek city of Andijan last year face an uncertain future in their new homeland, with many living in poverty and in fear that they will be forced back to Uzbekistan.

At least 800 refugees crossed the border in the days following May 13, 2005, when Uzbek troops opened fire on unarmed protesters.

So far, 440 have since been sent to other countries including Romania, the United States, Canada and Australia. The rest remain in Kyrgyzstan with 114 people - mainly opposition members, human rights activists and journalists – formally registered as refugees by the State Committee for Migration and Employment.

Among the 114, there are 40 to whom the Bishkek office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, has accorded its own refugee status, and another 50 who have applications pending with the agency.

An estimated 350 others, however, have not acquired refugee status and live in the shadows, earning money as unskilled labourers.

The registered refugees say the aid provided by the UNHCR – each individual gets ten kilogrammes of flour and rice, four kg of cooking oil and the same of sugar, and the equivalent of 12 US dollars in cash to last them a period of three months – is not enough to live on.

Turgun Rahimov, a pensioner and long-time member of the Uzbek opposition party Birlik, lives in Tokmak, 100 kilometres from Bishkek. Like many of his counterparts, he says he hasn’t got enough to eat and earns spare cash by collecting empty bottles for the deposit.

The refugees also live in fear of being sent back to Uzbekistan. Many say the reason why they do not seek formal refugee status is that they are worried this could bring unwelcome attention from the authorities.

Although the government was praised for allowing 440 refugees to leave for third countries, human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan and abroad have accused it of failing its obligation to protect those who remain.

The UNHCR representative in Bishkek, Vitaly Maslovsky, says the government has delayed the process of granting the Uzbeks legal status as refugees.

There are concerns among refugees and domestic and international human rights groups that the Kyrgyz authorities are quietly returning refugees and asylum-seekers to Uzbekistan in contravention of international law.

The Kyrgyz government has sought to reassure Uzbekistan of its commitment to clamping down on Islamic radicalism in the Fergana Valley, shared by both countries. Kyrgyz security forces mounted a major sweep in southern parts of the country over the summer which resulted in arrests and a number of deaths, including those of a suspected militant leader and a prominent Muslim cleric.

In late August, UNHCR said it was worried about the fate of four individuals who had disappeared from the city of Osh. All four had been registered by the Kyrgyz government’s migration agency.

UNHCR said it had credible information that at least two of them were now in custody across the border in Andijan.

At the same time, the United States embassy noted that a different group consisting of four registered refugees and one applicant had earlier been extradited to Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyzstan’s prosecution service said it had received no extradition requests for people who had applied for refugee status, but it later acknowledged that the four whose cases were raised by the UNHCR plus another man with a pending asylum application were no longer in the country.

Adilet, a local human rights group which helps protect refugees’ rights, now says it is aware of 17 Uzbeks who have disappeared without a trace.

Maslovsky of UNHCR said that such cases show that “Kyrgyzstan is not fulfilling its obligations on refugee rights in full”.

Police in Osh denied detaining the five who disappeared from the city, and began an investigation. However, there is concern both among refugees and in the human rights community, including Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, the police themselves are implicated in such abductions.

“When four Uzbek [other] refugees disappeared without trace, we immediately voiced our suspicions that they might have been kidnapped by our [Kyrgyz] law-enforcement bodies and handed over to the Uzbek authorities. And now this suspicion has been confirmed by reports that three of them are being held in Andijan prisons,” said Aziza Abdrasulova, the head of the human rights organisation Kylym Shamy, referring to a different group of people from those whose cases the UNHCR raised.

Many of the Uzbek refugees originally based in southern Kyrgyzstan have since moved north to Bishkek, where they hope they will be less vulnerable to predatory security officers.

Even when he lived in Bishkek, Rahimov said he was followed by people who told him they worked for the Kyrgyz law-enforcement services. “There have been several attempts to remove me. Strangers come to the apartment. So I often have to change my place of residence. This is difficult for me as I am over 60,” he said.

Another Birlik member, Anvar Akilov, who has been living in Bishkek since the Andijan violence, says he has approached repeatedly by strangers who tell him he should go back to Uzbekistan.

“It’s a kind of threat. I am afraid for my children,” he said.

Many refugees, however, are afraid to speak out against the Karimov government, because their families must live with the consequences if they do.

Mahmud Ilhomov, who also lives in Bishkek, told IWPR that after he was interviewed on the radio, his relatives began to be persecuted back in Uzbekistan. “My sister rang me and asked me with tears in her eyes to stop giving interviews,” he said.

Aziza Turdueva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

(The names of interviewees have been changed out of concern for their safety.)

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